With all due respect to the honorable judges of the 2013 Frank O’Connor short story contest, I just do not understand how Joyce Carol Oates’ Black Dahlia & White Rose got on the short list. As I have noted here and other places, I have never been an admirer of the stories of Ms. Oates, who I think writes technically proficient, but emotionally superficial short fiction—fiction that is more “pop” than literary, in spite of her protestations to the contrary. In my opinion, this most recent collection is her weakest to date.
At the outset, I assure you, although Joyce Carol Oates’ stories do not require a “second” reading, I did indeed, as is my wont, read all eleven stories in this collection. Let me quickly dismiss the usual finger exercises. Oates is the complete professional writer, who cannot resist converting everything she experiences or thinks about into “writing.” The collection contains at least three little narrative exercises (one hesitates to call them “experiments”) that might she might well have left in her notebook, that is, if she were not determined to write about everything she thinks about and publish everything she writes.
“Hey Dad” is the first person “voice” of a twenty-one year old man who walks across the graduation stage in front of his sixty-two year old father who is up there to get an honorary degree; he is the cliché prof who got one of his students pregnant, but was not interested in her child. The story ends with the salutation, “Hey Dad, it’s me.”
In “A Brutal Murder in a Public Place,” the narrator spots a bird in an airport waiting room and so sympathizes with its trapped plight that she “becomes” the bird. The piece ends with a foreboding that Oates finds irresistible, as the narrator/bird sees men coming toward her with a ladder, a small net, and “a wicked-looking broom.”
“San Quentin,” which is actually a sort of prelude to the following story, “Anniversary,” centers briefly on a San Quentin murderer/lifer named Quogn, who enrolls in a prison Intro to Biology class in order to find out “How you kill a person? How a person die? What it mean kill, die?”
O.K. now that those little “pieces” are out of the way, we move on to Oates’ more “serious” stories. First, there is the title piece (also little more than an extended exercise in “voice”), which features the first person pov of: Elizabeth Short (the so-called Black Dahlia who was brutally tortured and killed in Los Angeles in 1947); K. Keinhardt, the photographer who took the famous “Miss Golden Dreams” photo of a young nude Marilyn Monroe; and Norma Jean Baker (you know who), resurrected by Oates once again, this time, to be a roommate to the Black Dahlia. The originating energy of the story in Oates’ mind is that the murderer (who has never been discovered) really wanted to kill Marilyn, but, as a result of her aggressiveness, took Elizabeth Short instead).
This energizing trope is justification for Oates describing in gruesome detail, in the Dahlia’s own voice post mortem, the photos of her mutilated body (which Oates most helpfully hints can be seen in stark black and white at various sites). Short is presented as a street-wise aspirant to stardom, who says things like, “Don’t argue with me, I told Norma—this is the foundation of civilization,” and Monroe is made out to be a simpering baby-girl Betty Boop who says things like, “It was the awfullest—most horrible—thing” or “Oh, gosh I was getting mad at Betty.” Oh, yeah, it will keep you glued to the page, but the glue begins to stink pretty quickly.
“Run Kiss Daddy” and “Deceit” are typical Oatesian “trick” stories, for both suggest that something more in going on in the stories than appear on the surface. In the first, a divorced man who has been separated from his older children remarries a woman with two young children. He buys an A-frame on a lake where he used to take his first family and while there uncovers the body of a small female child. There is no reason to think that he has anything to do with this child, but Oates drops a suggestion that it may have been his own. In “Deceit,” a mother who takes sedative meds is called to her adolescent daughter’s school because her daughter has bruises on her body. Although the daughter makes it quite clear that the perpetrator is a cliché masculinized girlfriend, Oates ends the story with a sly suggestion that the mother may be the guilty party. The red herrings in these two stories are so sneaky that the reviewer in Kirkus Review swallows the bait and points the finger at the father in the first story and the mother in the second.
Because it originally appeared in The New Yorker and was chosen for the Best American Short Stories 2011, “I.D.” has the most cachet of these eleven stories. However, it is hardly more than an excuse for Oates to show that she knows something about the voice and life of an eighth-grader whose mother is a dealer at an Atlantic City casino. When the young girl is brought to the morgue by police to identify a woman who may or may not be her mother, the girl does not or cannot make the I.D. She denies that the woman in the morgue is her mother because she does not recognize her derelict body or her dumpster-discovered purse and coat. Oates purposely leaves the story open as to whether the girl purposely denies the ID or whether she honestly does not recognize this dead “body” as her living mother. This is all sound enough psychology, but when the girl goes back to school and tells her friend that she is fine—“Why not?” we cannot be sure enough about the voice to identify what this seeming indifference means.
In “The Good Samaritan,” a young woman finds a wallet on a train and decides to take to the address on a “In case of Emergency” card. We get some backstory of the young woman’s lackluster life, but she seems to blossom when she goes to the house and sees how handsome the wallet owner’s husband is. The ostensible mystery is that the wife has disappeared earlier that day and the husband does not know where she is, but the real mystery is why the narrator pretends that she is some kind of psychic who might be able to figure out where the wife is by handling her clothing and personal effects and why the husband so readily believes it.
Although the young woman can offer no help, the husband calls her a Good Samaritan and says there must be some reason God sent her to him. Thirty years later, the narrator laments that she has never found a man like the husband, although it is certainly not clear what she saw in him except a pretty face. The story ends inevitably, but ostensibly indeterminately, with the narrator remembering the husband’s saying there must be some reason God sent her to him and sighing, “Yes. I think that you must be right.” I have no idea why God sent her to the man; I only wish I knew why Joyce Carol Oates did.
The final three stories—“Roma,” “Spotted Hyenas: A Romance,” and “Anniversary” focus on pretty much the same woman. In “Roma,” she is in her fifties and in Italy on holiday with her husband, a supercilious distant type who acts as if he knows everything. In “Spotted Hyenas,” she is forty-three with a husband who is a successful litigator, but has little time for her. In” An Anniversary,” she is a retired scholar and academic administrator who is trying “to be of help” by volunteering to be an assistant in an expository writing class in San Quentin after her husband’s death. Children do not play a role in the lives of any of these women; the only question the stories pose is: How can these women find fulfillment?
In “Roma,” which is padded with bits of cultural and art history, the couple are fascinated by views in the windows of apartments across the way, ala, as Oates makes it emphatically, clear in case we are too culturally deficient to know, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The story focuses primarily on the woman’s sense that her husband is losing his old unexamined sense of himself as a man among men, although she is delighted to take advantage of his vulnerability by uncharacteristically snapping at him.
As is usually the case in an Oates story, the woman must face something of a comeuppance. This is achieved here by the somewhat trivial gambit of having her going shopping for expensive clothes and then getting lost when she tries to find the apartment building into which she and her husband have been peeping at night. Although she is anxious, there is no real threat here, for she is in the vicinity of her hotel; it is just that she becomes unreasonably panicked that she cannot find the building. “There has to be some explanation,” she ponders. But, alas there is none. Nor is there any explanation for her thinking, “This is my punishment now. For who I am.” Beats me!
“Spotted Hyenas: A Romance” is a Stephen Kingish tale of a woman who dreams, or fantasizes, or hallucinates, a man who also seems like a wolf haunting her at her home. When she gets an epiphany that the wolfish ghost is a man she knew in graduate school when she was studying biology, she looks him up on the Internet and decides to go visit him where he is a research scientist studying spotted hyenas. The introduction of this particular species gives Oates an opportunity to talk about their most extraordinary feature—that in their matriarchal society the female clitoris o the spotted hyena is masculinized to the size and behavior of a penis, a “pseudopenis,” if you will.
Furthermore—fascinating stuff this—the female gives birth through this narrow “tunnel-like organ.” So what’s the upshot of all this Origin of Species (helpfully mentioned several times in the story) stuff? Well, when she goes home, she dreams, fantasizes, or hallucinates, that she is transformed into a spotted hyena, joining her male hyena ghost, and killing her supercilious husband, before running off into the forest “where the night lies all before them, where to roam.” My, my, my!
“Anniversary,” the final story in the collection, is primarily an Oatesian opportunity to talk about how much she knows about maximum-security prison protocol. As usual in an Oates story, there is a seeming reality/illusion ambiguity here, for the retired window academic volunteering in the prison to teach freshman composition seems to expect to see someone she knows, although the story never really makes clear who that person is. It could be her husband, who died two years before, but why would he be there? And Oates cannot resist using her vast storytelling experience to set up what she takes to be a truly ambiguous ending.
When carelessly, she and her companion teacher allow a small pencil sharpener (you know, the ones with the itsy bitsy razor sharp blade) to get away from them, a prisoner disgusted with the woman” who had insulted his manhood with her condescension; with her ridiculous female vanity,” slits her throat. The story seems to end with this: “They would discover Vivianne Geary fallen and lifeless on the wooden ramp behind the entrance to the Education Office, at the very end of the ramp, bled out.” Indeed, Randy Boyagoda, in his review, in The New York Times no les, says, “In ‘Anniversary,’ a smug academic seeks new purpose by condescendingly teaching inmates, only to die from a casual oversight involving a purloined pencil sharpener.”
But wait!—as the television pitchmen often shout—on the next, that is, the last page of the story, there is another paragraph—this one explaining how the prison officials had reprimanded the woman and her colleague for their carelessness and that now on the drive home, he is cursing and she is crying. The story actually ends with: “She was exhausted, wounded, like one who has been stricken, her throat slashed. She was finished, she’d bled out. She heard herself say: ‘Next time. Yes.’”
What is this? Did The New York Times reviewer just not turn to the last page? Is this just another bogus Oatesian ambiguity? Are we really supposed to ask, “Wow, what really happened?” Did she get her throat cut or not?" Do we really care? I think not.
I am sorry, esteemed judges of this year’s Frank O’Connor Short Story contest, but I cannot, for the life of me, understand how this book deserves to be on the short list.